Donald Trump said on Friday he would nominate John Ratcliffe to serve as US director of national intelligence some seven months after the Republican congressman withdrew from initial consideration for the post.
The nomination is unlikely to quell the turmoil at the top of America’s intelligence establishment as officials brace for a deeply contested nomination process while fears escalate of a partisan purge at the top of the country’s national security apparatus and warnings that Russia is preparing to interfere in the 2020 elections.
Mr Ratcliffe is likely to face opposition in the Senate that could preclude his confirmation, a development that would reset the clock on the nomination process that could enable Mr Trump to keep Richard Grenell, whom the US president announced as acting director of intelligence earlier this month, for another 210 days.
A former senior intelligence official said the nomination may have been made to “present the Senate with two unpalatable options” — either to approve Mr Ratcliffe or have Mr Grenell continue as acting chief.
Mr Grenell, a vocal loyalist who is also US ambassador to Germany, was due to step down by March 11 had Mr Trump not taken action to fill the post with a permanent appointment. According to the Federal Vacancies Reform Act, the new nomination would allow Mr Grenell to extend his stint as acting director if Mr Ratcliffe, a former US attorney, is not confirmed.
“Would have completed process earlier, but John wanted to wait until after IG Report was finished. John is an outstanding man of great talent!” Mr Trump said in a tweet.
Mr Trump’s allusion to “IG report” likely refers to the Department of Justice inspector-general’s report over the FBI’s handling of a months-long investigation into whether the 2016 Trump presidential campaign was assisted by Russian intervention and which Mr Trump derided as a “witch hunt”.
The inspector general’s report on the 2016 election, released in December, said the FBI had made mistakes but found no evidence of political bias by the agency in the decision to investigate the campaign.
Mr Trump initially tapped Mr Ratcliffe as the nation’s intelligence boss overseeing 17 agencies to replace Dan Coats, a former Republican senator who resigned in July after the president publicly clashed with his intelligence community over a series of high-profile assessments of North Korea, Iran and Russia at odds with his own.
Less than a week later, Mr Trump said Mr Ratcliffe, a Texas representative and a member of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, had decided to remain in Congress “rather than going through months of slander and libel”. Mr Ratcliffe had faced opposition from some Republicans and Democrats and suffered from criticism that he lacked experience and had embellished his national security credentials.
“It’s very clear from last summer that Ratcliffe’s would-be nomination was in trouble and that’s precisely the point,” said Ned Price, a former CIA career officer who resigned in 2017 because he no longer wanted to work for Mr Trump.
“This is part of Trump’s effort essentially to purge the intelligence community and to install loyalists at the helm of the intelligence establishment. [Mr Ratcliffe] is someone who has scant intelligence experience, he has voiced his scepticism and distrust of the intelligence community and he in fact embellished his credentials.”
Mr Trump had appointed intelligence professional Joseph Maguire as acting director last summer but he left earlier this month after reports that his senior election official Shelby Pierson gave a classified briefing to Congress that included saying Russia had a preference for Mr Trump at the 2020 elections. An official at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said she “did not say Russia is aiding the re-election of President Trump”.
Intelligence professionals have expressed concern that Mr Grenell and his lieutenant Kash Patel, a former Republican Senate aide who has moved to the relatively small ODNI as his adviser, are seeking to stack the intelligence services with sympathisers who will help to quash reporting that might be at odds with the president’s agenda.
A second former senior intelligence official told the Financial Times the decision underlined Mr Trump’s intention to appoint someone to the role with “no apparent qualification except loyalty” to the president.
Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, called for Republicans to help reject Mr Ratcliffe’s nomination.
“Replacing one highly partisan operative with another does nothing to keep our country safe,” he said in a statement. “At a time when the Russians are interfering in our elections, we need a non-partisan leader at the helm of the intelligence community who sees the world objectively and speaks truth to power, and unfortunately neither acting director Grenell nor Rep Ratcliffe comes even close to that.”
But Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate select committee on intelligence, endorsed Mr Ratcliffe for the role.
“As I’ve said before . . . there is no substitute for having a permanent, Senate-confirmed director of national intelligence in place to lead our IC,” he said, adding he looked forward to receiving Mr Ratcliffe’s official nomination.
Four Republicans would need to reject Mr Ratcliffe’s nomination to scupper his bid in the Senate, in which Republicans have a 53-47 majority.